Los Angeles Clippers Must Be Taken Seriously as Western Conference Contenders

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Los Angeles Clippers Must Be Taken Seriously as Western Conference Contenders
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Something is up with the Los Angeles Clippers.

It's their stock.

Almost quietly, the Clippers have remained not only relevant, but also near the top of the NBA's ultra-competitive Western Conference, no small feat considering all they've been through.

From injuries to free-agency additions on a whim, the Clippers have been forced to adjust and persevere, rarely approaching full strength in a conference known for seeking out and dismantling teams with glaring weaknesses. Having just navigated 18 straight games without star point guard Chris Paul, the Clippers could have been one of those teams.

But they weren't.

Tough times haven't derailed their championship hopes or left them irrelevant. More than halfway into the season, the Clippers are right where they need to be—in the thick of it all.

 

Chris Paul Is Back

One game. That's all it was. After missing 18 games while tending to a separated right shoulder, Paul has appeared in just one game.

We all know better then to wax optimism after one game, right? One game against the tanking Philadelphia 76ers, no less. That win doesn't mean much. 

Except it does.

The Clippers destroyed the Sixers, winning 123-78. Their 45-point romp was the largest in franchise history. If the NBA had a mercy rule, it would have been enacted. The Sixers would have bolted Staples Center early. Like, after the first quarter. It was television-drama-about-a-protoganoistic-serial-killer bad for the Sixers.

For the Clippers, it was J.J. Redick look-alike, we-have-Sasha-Vujacic-and-we're-not-afraid-to-use-him good.

But yeah, it was just the Sixers. The 15-37 Sixers, who are more interested in this summer's draft than seeing the Clippers nearly triple their own score midway through the third quarter. This doesn't matter.

Neither does Paul's performance. He played under 23 minutes, registering a modest seven points and eight assists. Who cares? 

We all should.

"It felt great to play," Paul said afterward, via the Orange County Register's Dan Woike. "You never know what it’s going to be like until you get out there, compete and play. It just felt good to get out there and compete."

As good as it felt, the Clippers and Paul looked even better.

At times, Paul was sloppy (four turnovers) and a step or two slow. For the most part, though, the quickness was there and he was rarely playing catch-up. Oh, and those modest seven points and eight assists, to go along with four steals, came in 23 minutes. And in those 23 minutes, the Clippers outscored Philly by 42 points. 

It wasn't a perfect outing by Paul, but it was enough—enough to remind us the return of the league's best point guard is a beautiful thing.

 

Adding Awesome to Awesomeness

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

There is no replacing Paul and the Clippers wouldn't dare try, but there is the ability to survive without him.

In 18 games without Paul, the Clippers went 12-6 with superstar Blake Griffin leading the way. Only five of those wins came against teams .500 or better—and the Clippers were 5-5 against .500 or better teams overall—but winning is winning.

Paul's absence could have been a time for the Clippers to drop in the standings, for them to fall out of the Western Conference's top-four conversation. But they didn't. The Clippers were right there before, and they're right there again now.

Griffin's transformation is responsible for a bulk of their continued success. Without Paul, he averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists on 55.4 percent shooting per game, according to NBA.com (subscription required). He was and remains big time.

Griffin's Continued Dominance
When MPG PTS FG% REBS ASTS STLS Off. Rtg.
Pre-Paul Injury 36.6 22.1 52.0 10.6 3.1 1.0 107.4
In Paul's Absence 35.6 27.5 55.4 8.2 4.4 1.4 113.3
Last 4 Games 33.3 35.3 60.9 11.3 4.8 1.0 114.8

Via NBA.com.

In remaining big time, Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal says Griffin has vaulted himself into the MVP conversation:

Griffin's output is simply staggering, and he's consistently proving that he can handle being the focal point of an elite offense. This power forward has shrugged off all the criticism and been consistently dominant while keeping his Clippers near the top of the brutally difficult West.

Does he deserve to move past LeBron and Durant in the MVP conversation? Nope, not yet.

But he's at least starting to insert himself firmly into that conversation.

Merely being a part of that discussion attests to how ridiculous he's playing, carrying the Clippers in Paul's absence. And he's not the only one guilty of playing spectacular basketball.

DeAndre Jordan has quietly put together a career year, proving himself to be a vital part of Los Angeles' two-way attack.

In the 18 games without Paul, he was somehow even better:

DeAndre Jordan Is the Business
When MPG PTS FG% REBS STLS BLKS Off. Rtg.
Pre-Paul Injury 35.5 9.4 65.2 13.5 1.0 2.3
In Paul's Absence 37.0 11.2 65.5 15.0 1.1 2.5 114.1

Via NBA.com.

There is no overestimating the importance of Jordan's and Griffin's success. Their production and effectiveness is so often tied to Paul's ability to create for his teammates. Here they both are, though, thriving with and without Paul, keeping the Clippers afloat in potentially dark hours.

Toss in the continued offensive dominance of Jamal Crawford, the understated well-roundedness of Darren Collison and a gaggle of glue guys and specialists, and Paul has returned to an already-sturdy playoff team.

Inserting him only makes things better because, remember, awesome times awesome amounts to awesome squared every single time.

 

Balancing Act

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Put everything together and what do you have? A legitimate Western Conference powerhouse and NBA contender.

This season hasn't been especially kind to Los Angeles by any means. Redick and Paul have battled injuries, and numerous free-agency acquisitions have been made on the fly, hoping to infuse instant depth into a supporting cast that ranks 17th in scoring.  

Not everything has worked. The Clippers aren't perfect. They still struggle to space the floor with adequate three-point shooting, and their 14-12 record against teams above .500 is rather pedestrian.

But this Clippers team remains a force, having grown even stronger in wake of constant adversity.

"It’s forced our staff to do things differently," Clippers coach Doc Rivers told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper earlier this month. "I think it’s all good. To me, this is a new group. I think just throwing us in there and trying to figure stuff out on the fly, trusting each other, it’s been a very good thing for us.”

Most of the season has been spent at partial strength. Be it Paul or Redick or Matt Barnes, the Clippers haven't been healthy. It would have been almost too easy for them to stumble and fall, and fail. 

They haven't.

Injuries and obstacles that have threatened their livelihood have only made them stronger. More dangerous. More balanced.

Infogr.am.

The Clippers are one of only four teams that rank in the top 10 of both offensive defensive efficiency. That's the type of balance capable of winning championships. And it's one many thought the Clippers would struggle to obtain.

"We ran into a buzzsaw," Sixers coach Brett Brown said, via Woike.

Are the Clippers a legitimate championship contender?

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What Philly ran into was the Clippers, a team with championship aspirations and the resolve and wherewithal to back it up no matter what. 

Wins, however slaughterous, over squads like the Sixers may not seem like much, but great teams, contending teams make it their business to take care of business.

All year, even in Paul's absence, the Clippers have taken care of business, braving often less-than-ideal conditions only to come out looking better off than before, the way serious contenders always do.

 

*Stats courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.


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